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The ancient Magyars had a rich folk culture, which incorporated Eastern themes into its folktales, art, and music. Following the Hungarian conversion to Christianity in the 10th century, pagan and Eastern cultural elements were replaced by Western cultural and social patterns, and Latin became the official and literary language. During the 15th century Italian artists and scholars introduced the humanistic Renaissance into Hungarian culture. In the 16th century Hungarian replaced Latin. In the 18th and 19th centuries Hungary absorbed the Age of Enlightenment and Western European liberalism. The early 20th century saw the rise of the “West” school of Hungarian intellectuals, who favored the integration of Hungarian cultural elements with modern Western culture. After World War II (1939-1945) the Communist regime made efforts to pattern Hungarian culture after that of the USSR.

The cultural milieu of Hungary is a result of the diverse mix of genuine Hungarian peasant culture and the cosmopolitan culture of an influential German and Jewish urban population. Both the coffeehouse (as meeting place for intellectuals) and Gypsy music also have had an impact. Cultural life traditionally has been highly political since national culture became the sine qua non of belated nation building from the early 19th century. Theatre, opera, and literature in particular played crucial roles in developing national consciousness. Poets and writers, especially in crisis situations, became national heroes and prophets. Governments also attempted to influence cultural life through subsidy and regulation. During the state socialist era culture was strictly controlled; party interference was influenced by ideological principles, and mass culture was promoted.

Hungary's most traditional cultural element is its cuisine. Hungarian food is very rich, and red meat is frequently used as an ingredient. Goulash (gulyás), bean soup with smoked meat, and beef stew are national dishes. The most distinctive element of Hungarian cuisine is paprika, a spice made from the pods of chili peppers (Capsicum annuum). Paprika is not native to Hungary—having been imported either from Spain, India by way of the Turks, or the Americas—but it is a fixture on most dining tables in Hungary and an important export. Among Hungary's spicy dishes are halászle, a fish soup, and lecsó, made with hot paprika, tomato, and sausage. Homemade spirits, including various fruit brandies (pálinka), are popular. Before World War II, Hungary was a wine-drinking country, but beer has become increasingly prevalent. Although Hungarians were not quick to accept them, foreign cuisines appeared in Budapest from the 1990s, a sign of the growing influence of the outside world.